We want to start this article with a famous quote from Dr. Seuss which reads: “Adults are simply aged children”. Perhaps only in this way, in fact, we could understand more easily why a child is lying. Empathy with the little ones is a very powerful weapon. After all, aren’t adults forever children?
All parents would like to know why children lie. Sometimes understanding it would be very simple, just being able to think like them. But are our children aware of the gravity of the lie? Can they tell one type of lie from another? Today we want to try to answer these questions.
Studies on children’s lies
A child who lies is no longer “bad”, indeed, according to psychologist Victoria Talwar, of McGill University, Canada, the lie and the truth should not be considered as two opposites, such as black or white. In fact, children decide whether to say something true or false depending on the consequences of the message, and more specifically on the problems it will cause them.
According to Dr. Talwar’s study, depending on the punishment or harm that truth or lie will do to the child, the little one will opt for one or the other answer. It is not a conscious decision, it is simply dictated by the desire to avoid a negative situation.
However, when the parent is telling a lie to the child, the damage is much greater. In fact, when it happens, our children consider it a betrayal.
The curious thing about this study, conducted on 100 children aged 6 to 12 and their parents, is that the latter usually explain to their children that lying is wrong. Yet they too lie, although they do so in order to make their children’s lives easier and less painful. But this behavior confuses children, especially younger ones.
Do children take the reason for the lie into consideration when judging it?
During the experiment conducted by Dr. Talwar, some videos were shown with different situations in which someone was being harmed. In some videos a person lied and then the innocent was punished; in others, the person was telling the truth and therefore it was the guilty who received a punishment.
After showing the video, the children were asked how they judged the behavior of the different characters. The psychologist wanted to understand what was the moral judgment that the children gave to the different situations they had seen, and thus analyze the different stages of each child’s development from this point of view.
The responses were varied and gave rise to different interpretations. Although there is no precise age at which the child begins to distinguish truth and lies, it was possible to observe different reactions:
- The younger children in the experiment generally rated the lie as a bad thing. However, they were also more compliant with characters who lied, when the lie avoided harm or lessened it.
- For children between the ages of 10 and 12, the difference between lie and truth was more marked. They were aware of the consequences that telling the truth or a lie would entail, so they acted accordingly and consciously.
Does a child who lies have his motives?
When a child lies, we must evaluate this behavior especially according to his age and not necessarily see it as a betrayal that must make us angry. According to Alicia Banderas, author of the book Pequeños Tiranos (Little Tyrants), children lie mainly to avoid being punished. Other reasons could be: the shame of having done something wrong or the desire to do something they love to do, but which at that moment is forbidden.
On the other hand, research tells us that children with more advanced cognitive development start lying as early as two years old. Everyone else usually starts doing it around age three or four, and they do it the same way they venture into all other still unknown terrains. It is nothing more than a way of experimenting, of trying and making mistakes: telling a lie and seeing how dramatic its consequences can be.
However, sometimes, especially when they are a few years older, the lie can be intended to look better than others or to protect their secrets or for a simple whim.
As parents, therefore, we need to be careful when we lie to little ones. If they discover the lie, they will likely feel betrayed. Also, if we often lie, especially if we do it to manipulate them through promises we don’t keep, there will come a time when our words will count for them.
For this reason, the conclusions of Talwar’s study seem so important to us. Parents and educators need to talk more with children and explain the difference between lies and truth to them. As is almost always the case, dialogue is the best solution.